Mar 242020
 


James Proudfoot Sun on a House, Dieppe 1937

 

 

Famous last words?!

“I would love to have it open by Easter,” Trump said in an interview Tuesday with Fox News. “I would love to have it opened up and just raring to go by Easter.” “A lot of people agree with me. Our country is not built to built to shut down. Our people are full of vim and vigor and energy. They don’t want to be locked into a house or an apartment, it’s not for our country”

Note that Trump covered himself by framing it as “I would love to…” Still, Easter is April 12, 19 days from now. I think the US is highly unlikely to even have reached its peak in infections by then, and the country will be awash in misery, sickness, death and heartbreaking stories, not uplifting ones of a roaring economy.

The US death toll is still very low compared to its active cases, but that is because the epidemic in the country is relatively new, and there are still hospital beds and ventilators available. Those days will soon be over, try the end of next week if not sooner, and the death toll will be going going gone out of there.

And remember, half of all US corona cases are still in New York State alone. There are 49 other states to go, that just about all still have open borders with each other. New York today, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Connecticut etc. tomorrow.

If Governor Andrew Cuomo was not exaggerating too much earlier today when he said he asked FEMA for 30,000 ventilators and got only 400, the ominous path forward is beginning to look like a very eery version of a Yellow Brick Road to nowhere, with the Wizard sipping banana daiquiries on his private yacht in the Caribbean.

Our friend Mike Mish Shedlock did a bit of math on Sunday with data from the Covid Tracking Project, and came up with this:

How Long to 1 Million US Cases?

Inquiring minds are investigating a relatively new data feed from the Covid Tracking Project. I plot four data series for the US: Negative tests, positive tests, hospitalized, and deaths. Arguably, hospitalizations are the most significant column but the project only has two days worth of data. Once I have another dfats point or two, I will plot a trendline manually.


Trendlines At the current pace, the number of positive coronavirus cases would hit 100,000 on March 26, and 1,000,000 on April 3. At the current pace, the number of coronavirus deaths would hit 1,000 on March 26, and 10,000 on April 5. Those are not my projections, those are observations of what would happen if the current trends last that long at the same pace.

At that point, the US had 32,000 cases. On Monday that had become 42,000. As I write this, it’s 52,000 and the day is far from over. And remember what I said yesterday, that on March 8, just 16 days ago, the US reported 409 cases.

When I posted Mish’s numbers, I questioned his prediction of 100,000 cases by Thursday, but that’s really just details. If not Thursday, it will be Friday. Yes, that’s a doubling in 2 or 3 days. Early next week, if not his weekend, it’ll be 200,000. And so on. Mish says 1 million in 10 days from now. I see no reason to doubt him.

Either tomorrow or Thursday, March 25 or 26, the US will overtake China for the no. 1 global position in total cases -which is some 81,000 now-. With very flawed to non-existent testing procedures, with ongoing endless political bickering, and with a looming huge shortage in hospital beds and ventilators; this is beginning to look like a very bad movie.

By Easter, much of US industrial production in many parts of the country will have to be shut down, the same way China’s was -and still is-, and Italy’s is. You can’t successfully run a factory -or an office for that matter-, if your employees get sick, stay home, end up in hospital or worse. Even in the US, one single case should be enough to close the entire facility down.

The victim will have to be quarantined, as must his/her entire family, everyone (s)he worked with must be tested, and so on. It works like that everywhere, and the US is no exception. It can’t be, the risk is too high.

Brace yourself. Don’t take my word for anything, look at the numbers and draw your own conclusions. My idea is Easter is going to be different from usual this year.

 

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Feb 072020
 


Takeuchi Seiho Bear in snow 1940

 

 

As I said earlier today, I picked up a whole slew of articles on the “coronavirus” through the day yesterday, collected some more today, and then decided not to put them in my daily Debt Rattle news aggregator today because it would have been too much.

I wasn’t trying to focus on number of deaths or cases, interest in that is overblown by now. What I look for is news about the consequences of the “coronavirus” epidemic. See, most people look at the numbers, think that they are lower than they could be, and lower than in armageddon predictions, so we’ll all be alright.

And I’m not saying that we won’t be, never have, I’m saying the numbers are no longer the main story. The story has changed into the effects of the virus on domestic and international policies, and ultimately -especially- on global trade and travel. And those effects have only just started. Just like I said 2 days ago in The Big Lockdown.

Initially, the effects, the fallout, from the epidemic, will appear minor, companies will be able to switch things a little and do their thing. But at some point that changes. As I saw somebody say earlier, if even just 1% of your car parts are from China, and you can’t get them anymore, you’re not going to be building a car. The vast majority of carmakers use 30% Chinese parts or more.

And then you also have many thousands of cancelled flights, and cruises, and what has a much bigger impact: shipping of goods to, but of course mostly from, China. Chinese ports are already filing up with items like fruits, but that’s nothing yet. If you put half your country on lockdown, who’s going to service incoming and outgoing ships?

The Lunar New Year is done this Monday, but we know Chinese trains are down 75% of their passengers, and plane travel is off by over 50%. Xi Jinping allegedly told Trump yesterday that “We are fully confident and capable of fighting the epidemic. The long-term trend of China’s economic development will not change”, but how much of that is wishful thinking?

How do you restart an economy that has 400 million people under lockdown, and that sees all westerners leave? Xi must be getting anxious and nervous by now. And renditioning people is not going to do the trick. Ideally, he would convince the rest of the world that the virus is contained and no longer dangerous. No doubt the lowering rates of change in new cases is step one in trying to do that.

Xi would have had it easier if China hadn’t first attempted to wipe the disease under the carpet for 1-2 months. But that would be against longstanding Party lines, as I wrote in The Party and the Virus. Step one is always: “complete denial, not a word”.

And now he doesn’t just have western governments to deal with anymore, there’s also the people (both at home and abroad). Just wait until the first death is recorded in the US, Britain, France or somewhere near. The west will tend strongly towards a lockdown too. Politicians will cry: “it’s too expensive”, but that won’t be people’s priority. Fear will be.

So, three essays so far on the topic, 2019-nCoV, The Party and the Virus and The Big Lockdown, and here goes with lockdown fallout.

 

 

This is like a quarter of the population. 80 million in US terms. Do the math for your own country. 20 million French, 25 million Germans? Wow. Let’s see that one.

400 Million People Are On Lockdown In China As Guangzhou Joins Quarantine

Guangzhou, the capital of China’s southwestern Guangdong Province and the country’s fifth largest city with nearly 15 million residents, has just joined the ranks of cities imposing a mandatory lockdown on all citizens, effectively trapping residents inside their homes, with only limited permission to venture into the outside world to buy essential supplies.

The decision means 3 provinces, 60 cities and 400 million people are now facing China’s most-strict level of lockdown as Beijing struggles to contain the coronavirus outbreak as the virus has already spread to more than 2 dozen countries. That’s more than 400 million people forcibly locked inside their homes for 638 deaths? Just think about that: If there was ever a reason to believe that Beijing is lying about the numbers (and not just because Tencent accidentally leaked the real data), this is it.

Read more …

Saw this yesterday and thought: that’s very extreme. Again, imagine this in your own country or city. What would that take? 100 infections and 2 deaths?

Wuhan Ordered To Round Up All Infected Residents For Mass Quarantine

A senior Chinese official has ordered Wuhan authorities to immediately round up all residents infected with the novel coronavirus and place them in isolation, quarantine camps, or designated hospitals, according to the New York Times. City investigators have also been ordered to go to each home and check the temperature of every resident, as well as conduct interviews with infected patients’ close contacts.


“Set up a 24-hour duty system. During these wartime conditions, there must be no deserters, or they will be nailed to the pillar of historical shame forever,” said Sun Chunlan, a vice premier in charge of leading the CCP’s response to the outbreak. “The city’s authorities have raced to meet these instructions by setting up makeshift mass quarantine shelters this week. But concerns are growing about whether the centers, which will house thousands of people in large spaces, will be able to provide even basic care to patients and protect against the risk of further infection.” -NYT

Read more …

No wedding parties, locked in your home just like those cruise passengers are in their cabins. The idea of switching off elevators so people don’t go out is “brilliant”.

China Imposes Tougher Lockdown Measures

Beijing has banned group dining for events such as birthdays and weddings while cities such as Hangzhou and Nanchang are limiting how many family members can leave home each day. Hubei province, the worst hit by the virus, has switched off lifts in high-rise buildings to discourage residents from going outside. Its capital, Wuhan, has a lack of beds and equipment, one senior city official said. Despite the rapid construction of two hospitals, the volume of patients is causing severe strain. Reports on social media say the Wuhan government is to carry out door-to-door temperature checks on residents.


Human Rights Watch director Kenneth Roth said China had suppressed reports in the early days of the outbreak and clamped down on criticism of its handling of the crisis. “There’s no place for secrecy in fighting an epidemic,” he said. Although he praised Beijing for quickly sharing the DNA sequence of the virus, he attacked the lockdowns policy. “Quarantines of this sort typically don’t work. Quarantines, the kind that public health officials advocate, are much more targeted. They’re aimed at people who have been identified as having the virus,” he said. Mr Roth said there were “huge gaps” in getting people fed, housed and treated. Chinese officials have strongly defended their approach.

Read more …

This morning’s numbers. “We have declared a people’s war against the epidemic through prevention and control..”

And Trump told Xi he would win that war. But only after he closed the borders with a 14-day quarantine even for Americans,

China Reports 73 New Deaths From Coronavirus, 3,143 New Cases

Chinese President Xi Jinping told his US counterpart Donald Trump on Friday that China’s economic development would not be affected by the outbreak, according to CCTV, China’s state broadcaster. CCTV reported that, in a phone conversation with Trump, Xi said the Chinese government and people had put their fullest efforts into containing the outbreak since it had started. “We have adopted the most comprehensive and strictest prevention and control measures through mobilising and rapid responses. We have declared a people’s war against the epidemic through prevention and control,” Xi was quoted as saying. “We are fully confident and capable of fighting the epidemic. The long-term trend of China’s economic development will not change.”

Read more …

It’s either one giant dilemma or very many smaller ones. But I don’t see him solving it before the peak of the epidemic in 2-3 months. What are Chinese workers do in the meantime?

China Faces Dilemma As It Tries To Get Back To Work

China is facing a dilemma as it tries to get back to business after the extended Lunar New Year holiday amid fears that a mass movement of workers across the country will worsen the spread of the deadly coronavirus that has struck nearly 30,000 people. Allowing the workforce to return to their jobs was crucial both for sustaining economic growth and providing support to fight the outbreak, according to Lu Zhengwei, chief economist at the Industrial Bank in Shanghai. “It’s obviously desirable for employers who are now paying rent, salaries and social welfare for their employees, for nothing in return,” he said, adding that most small and medium enterprises in China could only last about a month in the current situation.

After the State Council, China’s cabinet, issued a directive to extend the holiday until last weekend as part of measures to contain the virus outbreak, a number of provinces and municipalities – including Beijing, Shanghai, Zhejiang and Guangdong – pushed back the return to work to this Monday. That extended hiatus of business operations will have an impact on the country’s economy, which has already been battered by the protracted trade war with the United States. Advisory firm Oxford Economics has lowered its growth outlook for China to 5.4 per cent in 2020, compared with 6 per cent previously, according to its chief Asia economist Louis Kuijs. Meanwhile, Tao Wang, China economist at UBS, forecast the country’s first-quarter growth at 3.8 per cent, and 5.4 per cent for the whole year.

[..] Huang Xin, an official with the China Railway Corporation, said about 2 million to 3 million passengers were expected to travel each day from Saturday to Tuesday – only about one-quarter of the normal peak number following the Lunar New Year break. “We will be paying extra attention to return trips of college students and migrant workers,” he said at a press briefing in Beijing. “We will also use big data to adjust our railway capabilities.” [..] Similar arrangements had been made for air passengers, said Yu Biao, an official with the Civil Aviation Administration of China. Yu said the number of flights in China had been halved in the past week, and only 45 per cent of seats had been filled.

Read more …

Mandatory 14-day quarantines for US citizens. What will people do, use their remaining vacation days? Or not go?! I think I know.

China Grows Isolated As Airlines Cancel More Than 50,000 Flights

One by one, air carriers have cut service after demand fell sharply and governments took more drastic measures that they say aim to curb the spread of the disease [..] These steps have left China, the world’s second-largest air travel market after the U.S., more isolated. Airlines in dozens of countries have scaled back service or in the case of U.S. airlines canceled flights altogether to the Chinese mainland and Hong Kong as the coronavirus spreads.

This will drive down airlines’ 2020 revenue and deprive other segments of the travel industry, including hotels and retailers, of high-spending tourists. The outbreak has some travelers exercising more caution with their travel, even for destinations other than China. Many travelers would be inquiring about spring travel during this time of year, said Cindy Guo, who runs Top Travel International in Flushing. “Some people prefer to stay home” because of the virus, she said. The U.S. instituted travel restrictions on Sunday that include requiring returning U.S. citizens who have been in Hubei province — where Wuhan, the epicenter of the virus, is located — to face mandatory, 14-day quarantines.

The Trump administration has ordered self-quarantines for U.S. citizens who have been in other parts of mainland China. Additionally, foreigners who have been in China in the last two weeks, except for immediate family of U.S. citizens and permanent residents and a few others, won’t be allowed in at all. [..]

At stake are more than 165,000 scheduled flights in and out of China between Jan. 29 and March 28 that would affect 27 million travelers, according to data from aviation consulting firm Cirium. More than 54,011 flights, or 28% of the scheduled flights to, from and within China between Jan. 23 and Feb. 4 were canceled, 14% of them the international scheduled flights. Getting around within China is also becoming more complicated, and close to 32% of domestic flights were called off in that period.

Read more …

And of course it’s not just airlines. Shipping is a much bigger driver of the economy. It’s been less than 3 weeks, and goods are getting stranded, Try 2-3 more months and tell me what you find.

Global Shipping Being Hit By The Coronavirus. Now Goods Are Getting Stranded

The arteries of global trade are clogging up. Shipping companies that carry goods from China to the rest of the world say they are reducing the number of seaborne vessels, as measures to stop the spread of the coronavirus crimp demand for their services and threaten to disrupt global supply chains. About 80% of world goods trade by volume is carried by sea and China is home to seven of the world’s 10 busiest container ports, according to the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development. Nearby Singapore and South Korea each have a mega port too.

[..] “This will affect many industries and limit demand for containerized goods transport,” Sand told CNN Business. Everything from cars and machinery to apparel and other consumer staples are shipped in containers, and disruption to the industry could reverberate far beyond China as the country seeks to contain the coronavirus outbreak by keeping factories shut and workers at home. The longer the health crisis lasts, the harder it will be to move goods around the world.

Already, carmaker Hyundai has suspended production at its plants in South Korea because of a disruption to the supply of parts caused by the coronavirus outbreak in China, the company said in a statement. The shutdowns mean that some ships can’t get into Chinese ports, as the loading and discharging of goods slows, said Guy Platten, secretary general of the International Chamber of Shipping, a trade body.

Others are stuck in dock, waiting for workers to return to ports so that construction and repairs can be completed, Platten added. Still more vessels are idling in “floating quarantined zones,” as countries such as Australia and Singapore refuse to allow ships that have called at Chinese ports to enter their own until the crew has been declared virus-free, added Sand. Platten said he knew of at least one crew that is running low on food because their ship has been idled for so long.

Read more …

I so feel for these people. Claustrophobic as hell I am.

Coronavirus Infections Triple On Cruise Liner Quarantined In Japan

Dozens of additional passengers aboard a cruise liner in Japan have tested positive for coronavirus, bringing the total number of infections on the ship to 61 as 3,700 people remain trapped on the quarantined vessel.
Stuck at the port of Yokohama since earlier this week, the ship’s 3,700 passengers and crew face weeks of quarantine as medical workers test for signs of the deadly contagion. The ship is now like a “floating prison,” one passenger said on social media, where haunting images have emerged showing its abandoned halls, once bustling with activity. Of the thousands of passengers on board, 273 have shown symptoms of illness, such as cough and fever, or came in contact with those who have.


All of those passengers have now been tested, Japan’s Health Ministry said, noting the 41 new patients will be transferred to medical facilities in Tokyo, Saitama, Chiba and Shizuoka prefectures, as well as Kanagawa. It remains unclear whether additional cases could arise on the ship, as the novel coronavirus has been found to spread person-to-person, even among those not yet showing symptoms, with a long incubation period. Some passengers already expressed fear that they could eventually end up stuck on the vessel for much longer than 14 days if new infections occur. With the number of infections on the ship tripling on Thursday as health screenings continue, Japan now counts at least 86 cases of the lethal coronavirus nationwide.

Read more …

Welcome! Bring ’em on!

Now the CDC has to figure out who all these people have been in contact with the past 2 weeks and more.

How do they test for asymptomatic carriers? Does the US have enough testing kits? Even if they do, does Britain, does Belgium, France?

And would the US give them away? In China, cities steal each other’s supplies of face masks etc.

Royal Caribbean Ship With 12 Quarantined Passengers Docks In NJ

A Royal Caribbean cruise ship that has 12 passengers quarantined over fears of coronavirus has docked in Bayonne, New Jersey, this morning with ambulances on the scene. The “Anthem of the Seas” arrived in New Jersey just hours ago, at about 6AM, in thick dense fog, according to ABC 6. Several ambulances were on standby at the scene. The passengers in quarantine will all be tested by the CDC, who was also awaiting the arrival of the ship on the scene. The passengers of the ship are all Chinese nationals – many of whom started exhibiting symptoms while aboard the ship, which was coming back from the Bahamas.

Read more …

From planes to ships to automobiles. It’s a small step for man, big step for us all.

The Global Car Industry Is Bracing For A Huge Shock From China /span>

China makes more cars than any other country, and is also the world’s biggest market. When car plants across China shut last month for the Lunar New Year holiday, the industry was already under huge pressure: sales had been falling for two years due to the loss of tax incentives for electric cars and the slowing economy, and officials were expecting an unprecedented third year of stagnation.

Many of those plants have since been ordered to remain shut at least until next week as the Chinese government scrambles to contain the virus that first appeared in Wuhan, a major autos hub [..] Automakers are bracing for even longer shutdowns and a deeper recession in global sales.

[..] The extended factory closures are expected to make it much more difficult for the industry to emerge from its recession. According to S&P Global Ratings, the outbreak will force carmakers in China to slash production by about 15% in the first quarter. The auto industry is particularly exposed because the virus originated in one of China’s “motor cities.” General Motors, Nissan, Renault, Honda and Peugeot owner PSA all have large factories in Wuhan, which has been on lockdown since late January. Wuhan and the rest of Hubei province account for 9% of total Chinese auto production, according to S&P Global Ratings. PSA Group told CNN Business this week that its Wuhan plant would remain closed until at least February 14.

Volkswagen is most exposed to potential damage. The world’s largest automaker has 24 plants making cars or parts in China, accounting for 40% of its production. [..] The situation could get worse before it gets better. S&P Global Ratings researchers said the Chinese government could extend factory shutdowns in order to limit contagion risk, affecting as much as half of China’s car and auto parts production.

Read more …

9-10 days? You really think that’ll do it?

Toyota Keeps China Plant Output Stopped Till Feb. 16 As Virus Hits Supply

Toyota Motor Corp on Friday said production at all of its plants in China would remain suspended through Feb. 16, joining a growing number of automakers facing output stoppages due to supply chain issues as the coronavirus outbreak spreads. The Japanese automaker, which operates 12 vehicle and vehicle components factories in China, said it would extend its production stoppage “after considering various factors, including guidelines from local and region governments, parts supply, and logistics.” The decision extends Toyota’s initial plans to suspend operations through Sunday, and comes as the threat from the coronavirus crisis closes in on the global auto industry.

Read more …

Big one. What’s in the fine print of the contract? What’s the use of going to court if the buyer can’t take delivery? How long would a court case take? How much do you value your buyer?

France’s Total Rejects Force Majeure Notice From Chinese LNG Buyer

French oil major Total has rejected a force majeure notice from a liquefied natural gas (LNG) buyer in China, the first global energy supplier to publicly push back against firms backing out of deals amid the coronavirus outbreak. Concerns that Chinese companies could back out of contracts because of the coronavirus epidemic have slowed down spot crude oil and LNG sales into China, the world’s top energy consumer, increasing global supplies and depressing prices of energy products. “Some Chinese customers, at least one, are trying to use the coronavirus to say I have force majeure,” Philippe Sauquet, head of Total’s gas, renewables and power segment, said during the company’s full-year results presentation on Thursday.

“We have received one force majeure that we have rejected.” Companies invoke force majeure when they cannot meet their contractual obligations because of circumstances beyond their control. Sauquet did not disclose the name of the buyer Total rejected a force majeure notice from. Reuters reported on Thursday that China National Offshore Oil Corporation (CNOOC), the country’s biggest importer of liquefied natural gas (LNG), has declared force majeure on some prompt deliveries with at least three suppliers because of the rapid spread of the coronavirus, two sources said on Thursday. Total is one of the biggest suppliers of LNG to CNOOC, industry sources said.

Last week, a Chinese international trade promotion agency said it would offer force majeure certificates to companies struggling with the fallout from the coronavirus epidemic to give to their overseas partners. Lawyers told Reuters that LNG contracts are typically governed by English law which spell out events that constitute a force majeure and some may include the epidemic clause. Serving the force majeure notice is the first step in a long-drawn out process, they said. The onus is also on buyers to prove that they are not physically able to receive the cargo to demonstrate a force majeure. For instance, if there are port closures or if workers are unable to get to the ports due to the virus.

Read more …

I love lines like: ““There is absolutely no need to panic buy..”, because what’s the other side of that? You can trust us to tell you when there’s a need to panic?

But a government could never tell you to panic.

Best version is “This is not the time to panic”. And then you go: Okay, I’ll watch some TV then, and I’ll make sure I get my ten hours of sleep. But first thing in the morning….

Panic Buying As Hong Kong Government Silent On Coming Quarantine Move

Anxious Hongkongers scrambled on Thursday to stock up on essentials over fears that border restrictions to contain the coronavirus would choke off shipments, while the government provided scant details on the mandatory quarantine taking effect in less than 36 hours on arrivals from mainland China. As long queues formed at shops all over the city for the second straight day and people jostled to grab toilet and tissue paper, as well as rice and perishables, food suppliers sought to assure the public there was no need for hoarding. “There is absolutely no need to panic buy. We have always worked to ensure a stable supply of food and all these years, throughout all sorts of big events, we have never had a shortage,” Thomas Ng Wing-yan, chairman of the Hong Kong Food Council, told a press conference.


The fears, fed by online rumours, mounted when the government announced on Wednesday it would impose a 14-day quarantine on anyone entering from mainland China, sparking concerns that supplies would also be held up. But while the government said it would reveal more on the quarantine measures on Thursday, the day ended with no information forthcoming, as sources told the Post that Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor was still locked in meetings over facilities and details on implementation. Even as they gave assurances, representatives of rice, pork, egg, seafood, poultry and fruit-and-vegetable merchants urged the government to exempt cross-border truck drivers from the 14-day quarantine set to kick in on Saturday, to avert any delays in supplies reaching the city.

Read more …

Li Wenliang appears to have been off by a week or so. Bless his soul, he got caught in Phase 1, in which the Party’s knee-jerk reaction is “complete denial, not a word” (they can’t help themselves). One week later he would have come in in Phase 2, “damage control, massaging the numbers downward”. He would have gotten much less Party flack… See again The Party and the Virus.

Coronavirus Kills ‘Hero’ Chinese Doctor Who Sounded Alarm

A Chinese doctor who tried to warn the world about a new coronavirus died of the disease on Friday, prompting an outpouring of sorrow as the death toll passed 630 and Beijing declared a “people’s war” on the rapidly spreading pathogen. Li Wenliang, 34, died in the early hours of the morning at the hospital where he worked and first raised the alarm about the new coronavirus in the central Chinese city of Wuhan, the epicenter of the outbreak, hospital officials said. An ophthalmologist, Li was one of eight people reprimanded by Wuhan police last month for spreading “illegal and false” information about the coronavirus, a flu-like pathogen that since triggered a global health emergency.


His messages to a group of doctors on Chinese social media warning of a new “SARS-like” coronavirus – a reference to Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) which killed almost 800 people around the world in 2002-2003 – triggered the wrath of Wuhan police. China was accused of trying to cover up SARS. He was forced to sign a letter on Jan. 3 saying he had “severely disrupted social order” and was threatened with criminal charges.

Read more …

… but Phase 2 already gave way to Phase 3: “close all the doors, not to worry, nothing to see here, we got this, no you can’t come in, too risky!”

That’s what these guys get.

Citizen Journalists Who Exposed Beijing’s Lies In Wuhan Have Vanished

Bloomberg reports that Beijing has silenced two of the citizen journalists responsible for much of the horrifying footage seeping onto western social media. As BBG’s reporter explains, Chinese citizen journalists Chen Qiushi and Fang Bin have effectively been “the world’s eyes and ears” inside Wuhan (much of the film produced by American news organizations has consisted of drone footage). In recent days, SCMP and other news organizations reporting on the ground and publishing in English have warned that Beijing has stepped up efforts to censor Chinese social media after allowing citizens to vent their frustrations and share news without the usual scrutiny.

On Wednesday, China said its censors would conduct “targeted supervision” on the largest social media platforms including Weibo, Tencent’s WeChat and ByteDance’s Douyin. All in an effort to mask the dystopian nightmare that life in cities like Wuhan has become. But that brief period of informational amnesty is now over, apparently. Fang posted a dramatic video on Friday showing him being forcibly detained and dragged off to a ‘quarantine’. He was detained over a video showing corpses piled up in a Wuhan hospital. However, he has already been released.

Chen, meanwhile, seems to have vanished without a trace, and is believed to still be in government detention. Last week, we shared one of Chen’s more alarming videos documenting the severe medical supply shortages and outnumbered medical personnel fighting a ‘losing battle’ against the outbreak.

Read more …

 

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Mar 072019
 


Wassily Kandinsky Succession 1935

 

 

While we’re on the issue of the Green New Deal, here’s an article by Dr. D. with an intro by Dr. D., one he sent me in the mail that contained the actual article, and that I think shouldn’t go to waste. I hope he agrees.

Waste being the key term here, because he arrives at the same conclusion I’ve often remarked upon: that our societies and economies exist to maximize waste production. Make them more efficient and they collapse.

Ergo: no Green New Deal is any use if you don’t radically change the economic models. Let’s see AOC et al address that, and then we can talk. It’s not as if a shift towards wind and solar will decrease the economic need for waste production (though it may change the waste composition), and thus efficiency is merely a double-edged sword at the very best.

Here’s Dr. D. First intro, then article:

 

 

Dr. D: [..] of course there are a thousand things I can say, but I wanted to make just this one point:  that the economy as we know it is prohibited from contracting by its own system structure.  One thing I couldn’t expand on is that I believe it is almost entirely unconscious.  People like AOC, the Aspen Ecological Center, these people have in the back of their minds “What is possible” and “how things are done” and “can I sell this or will people turn away.” 
 
As I say, the idea of saying, “Everything will be perfect, just live like a Zen Monk” is a non-starter.  Why, I don’t know, as it’s very pleasant and quite provable. WHY that is in the back of OUR minds (and only ours, they often say “humans” are violent, mean or exploitative, but Algonquins or Kalahari Bushmen might show otherwise), is another whole question, however, it is the root of our, and only OUR, western culture: limitless growth and progress. A religion of Progress that replaces God himself, as the Archdruid would say.
 
However, here we are. And our system parameters, of our western system do NOT permit ANY contraction of growth or progress. At this point, the entire economic and financial system would collapse, and as we no longer have any religion, community, or moral framework, or possibly even reason, our whole society would collapse with it. 
 
That’s a lot to take on, so let’s just simply ask in public why we are calling for 20 years of furious concrete/CO2-producing growth must occur to rebuild those windmills and 4,000 buildings a day, or whether we should just take the Yankee mantra (and no doubt a Norwegian one too) to “Use it up, wear it out, make it do, or do without.” There is so much wasted you could dumpster dive and Craigslist the first 10 years, giving us enormous resources to apply to raw energy use. But we won’t, and no one will even say it, although everyone knows it, has done it, and CLAIMS there’s an urgent crisis. 
 
So let’s start here and ask why we’re not doing the most stupid, basic, cheap, things, like turning down the thermostat and walking to the store AT ALL, instead of (sorry to pick on this) saving the bats in Mauritania, or the whales in Japan. Why?  Because then SOMEBODY ELSE has to take a boot to the teeth, not me in Brooklyn or London. And we will MAKE THEM take in the teeth for me, so I DON’T HAVE TO. We were already down this road in 1970 as the Archdruid has said, we already made this decision not to wear sweaters way back. Instead, I can claim rights to $100 Trillion in wealth and dole it out like the queen, making friends and fame without limit. 
 
But it won’t work, and we need to get on it right away. I believe the leaders already know we’re going to hit the wall and are purposefully trying to hit the accelerator as with outlawing seeds, meat, poisoning soil and water, outlawing gardens, controlling travel – these are all the foundations of Stalin about to approach Ukraine. I can see that in 20 approaches they’re pushing, but I don’t expect them to be very successful.  Such as, WE are going to have to do it, not the other guy. And I in fact do, but I’m pretty busy, so this is the best I can do right now. 
 
And perhaps you too.

 

 

The Real New Deal

 

Dr. D: The Green New Deal has taken front page headlines lately, and the discussion on how to green the economy and become more ecological is real. Certainly all sides have wide agreement, where while the Left may call for salvation from Global Warming, yet the Right will call for efficient resource use, preserved farmland and better hunting camps. Everyone loves National Parks, being one of the largest tourist draws in our nation and also for our fellow nations worldwide, nobody likes to see animals run down or the environment destroyed.

With so much agreement, so widespread, it’s difficult to see why a consensus cannot be agreed on. Even if the means are different – statist control vs volunteer capitalism – surely the goals would be reached in any case. Perhaps with two methods, approaches, and visions, attaining our common goals could be far easier. If so, then why does there seem to be such obstacles and reluctance in our joint moment into a greener, better future? The Left says it’s because of the Right, and the Right because of the Left. Yet I can tell you it’s neither: it’s simply math and physics.

An “Economy” is the “the wealth and resources of a country or region, especially in terms of the production and consumption of goods and services.” That is to say they are the static things, like land, rivers, and copper mines, as well as the specific ways in which those blank resources are put to use: the transportation of them to factories, their manufacture, sale, and disposal. This encompasses things not on-ledger, like where environmental and social costs are offloaded, and who is enjoying the benefit of a resource that will run out for our children. This is also the things that are on-ledger, such as who benefits from profits or productivity, and which sectors are subsidized and which are starved. The Financial System rides atop of the Economic System, simply accounting it, keeping track of it, and sending the messages to it about where the needs are and which products should go where.

But neither exist in a vacuum. Although we generally overlook it, the Economic and Financial Systems are an expression of our personal beliefs and values, and those of our nation and national culture or personality. So in the U.S., we have chosen to measure our national prosperity using headline metrics such as the S&P and the GDP. These change character from time to time, as we used to measure the GNP, and now follow the NASDAQ. And the way we characterize them is also relevant: in the U.S., for instance, we measure all government spending in GDP as if it were private spending; that is, as if it were a profit, not an expense.

Nor is this financial arcana: although when this choice was made to make it seem the economy was stronger during the Great Depression, “you optimize what you measure”, and now the government itself has become the economy, with $22T in debts owed, and is directing most resources, but at a LOSS, not a profit. We then record that loss as prosperity. Nor is that different for the S&P or NASDAQ: if the popular financial numbers decline, the Fed will openly take money from the people and push the numbers back up again to indicate “success” and “prosperity” as we measure it. Yet the money borrowed from the taxpayers, the currency holders, makes them poorer, not richer.

 


World energy consumption per capita based on 2003 data from the International Energy Agency

 

What does this have to do with the Green New Deal and our joint goal of a cleaner, greener world? Well, the Green New Deal proposes to spend vast sums of money to transfer energy use to renewables and carbon-free sources, and there are unimaginable profits to be made should anyone do this. Unfortunately, the fact this hasn’t occurred is strong proof that it’s not possible. Not that green energy can’t be made or doesn’t exist, but that it’s not PROFITABLE to do so – that’s why the government, or rather the taxpayers, are asked to pay for it. But profit is only money, as the MMT-believers will avow.

What really matters is that thermodynamically, the EROEI, the “energy returned on energy invested” is too low. That is to say, you put in 90 calories and get out only 91. Or worse, put in 101 calories and get out only 90. This is easily shown in a wide variety of green projects, from solar – it’s estimated the electric produced over 20 years is equal to the glass-and-silicon manufacture – to ethanol, where despite enormous carbon, petrol, and water use in the cement, steel, shipping, and manufacturing of the distilling plant, the corn may only produce 10 units gain per 90 invested, or possibly none at all.

This is likely true for windmills, which if needing repair will add costs, while requiring a full-scale standing grid behind them at all times, as well as electric cars, which not only require a grid, but also may use more energy and cause more pollution in mining and smelting the batteries than the vehicle saves over a lifetime. Nor was this a surprise: again, as bad a system as financial accounting is in a system riddled with stock frauds and subsidies, nevertheless, if any of these saved energy, the huge drop in input costs – no gas used – would immediately render all these projects profitable, and not in need of a subsidy.

This is how coal replaced wood, and tractors replaced horses – sometimes in as little as 10 years. This is how LEDs instantly replaced incandescents, or the Prius replaced the K-car –lower costs, better products. And is how the U.S. has had one of the largest drops in CO2 emissions despite shutting down green subsidies and pulling out of the Paris Accord – organically, by market forces. Because despite our terrible, corrupt, interventionist system screwing up all the incentives, everybody loves a deal, and those arbitrages, those improvements still stand out.

 

Since we’re already using our technical limit, there is another way we can join together, reduce energy use, reduce waste and green the planet: lower demand.

The U.S. uses about half our energy for transportation, and if you’ve been to America, you know that most of that transportation is unnecessary: people live on average +20 minutes from work, and our oversized, centralized schools mean they are nearly as far. It’s not uncommon for every child to have a 40-minute bus ride each morning and night to and from school, and although more efficient than cars, there’s little need, only habit. We concentrated millions of small schools into a few huge ones from 1950 to 2000, just as we concentrated millions of small towns and shops into a few mega-centers. The remaining small businesses – dentists, phone stores, pizza shops – are randomly distributed, without any location in neighborhoods nor any access to public transit, and this would take decades to transform.

Nor is this a thing the people prefer. Commuting is one of the least-liked aspects of modern life as well as the most energy-intensive one. So instead of following massive hundred-trillion debt expenditures that show no promise of returning value, shouldn’t we grasp the low hanging fruit of efficiency? In fact, thermodynamically, efficiency is the only game in town, a 100 or 1,000:1 EROEI instead of 1.2:1. We have even done this from time to time during wars when massive campaigns led to massive efficiency, massive production, massive savings, ration books, and near-total recycling.

But nobody wants that. And that’s why the Green New Deal is structured exclusively as a SPENDING program, and not a SAVING one, because we don’t want to save, we want to SPEND. Part of this of course is that it’s more fun to spend than to save, but more importantly, it’s what we do, it’s what we measure. If you were to have a Green New Deal that is easy to implement and proven to work like the WWII model, GDP and profits would fall sharply. Although much, perhaps most, energy is wasted on unimportant things, the higher efficiencies would mean lower sales, lower production, and lower throughput EVEN IF IT MEANT A HIGHER QUALITY OF LIFE. This is easily seen in the U.S. vs Japan or Europe comparisons:

 


World energy consumption per capita based on 2013 data from the World Bank

 

The U.S. uses 10,000kg oil while Japan uses 5,000 and Portugal uses 2,500, and while there are important differences between nations, we don’t think of Japan or Portugal as sacrificing quality of life. This is strictly a choice, a design built up over lifetimes of effort. So if we could become as efficient as Japan and live far better too, why don’t we? This is a no-argument left-right win that can be implemented in hours, why isn’t capturing this easy gain the real target of the GND?

“You get what you incentivize.” If efficiency were the Real Green Deal, money would NOT be spent in Congress, Companies would NOT be paid, and lobbyists go home empty and poor. People would NOT be employed for the new projects and they would NOT vote for the new Congressmen. Government spending falls, even private-sector GDP would decline, and falling with it would be protected sectors of the economy like oil and utilities. How do you sell “Let’s cancel the party and stay home with the lights out”?

But it’s far worse than that in ways we don’t see. We think about New Deal SPENDING because spending has been exclusively incentivized for 100 years. The economy, the society, the financial system have all been built around GROWTH, not efficiency; MORE, not less, until the systems themselves can no longer function with anything less than unceasing expansion, ever-increasing, forever.

If GDP drops for any reason, even for efficiency and an easy increase in the quality of life – even to save all life on earth – consumption drops. A simpler life with fewer miles driven means less gas wasted and fewer cars sold. Fewer cars means fewer meals out. Sales drop. Employment drops. Stock markets drop. The lower valuation of companies means bond quality drops. Lower sales and lower activity mean tax revenue drops. Government programs drop. Treasury bonds drop and with it, military power drops. As stocks, bonds, and T-bill drop, pensions drop. Insurance drops. In short, the entire economy drops, contracts, goes into a sharp deflation and depression with world-wide unemployment and mass bankruptcies.

But worse than that. Economies come and go, wax and wane and adjust to the new realities. However, unlike previous eras, under a debt-based fiat-money system, one thing does NOT drop: debt. As the value of all things declines, the debt owed only increases. By companies. By citizens. By whole governments. And so soon as the numbers in a debt-based system stop increasing, that debt defaults.

 

Now in previous times, the relative values of debts, assets, and money would simply re-adjust. Bonds would fall, gold (cash) would rise. Bad companies and inefficiencies would be driven out, and the system would recover without the dead weight and bad ideas at a more accurate pricing. But that won’t happen this time. Because everything is so highly leveraged and centralized, and the financial system is our primary means of directing the economy, that system under a debt-based fiat system would almost entirely collapse, and the disruptions of reforming and restarting it would almost certainly take years, during which the economy itself, the production of wheat bread and toothpaste, heating oil and electric lights, would come to a virtual halt, threatening the lives of millions, hundred millions, even billions worldwide.

Wars would start. Nations would fall. So while we don’t think of these things, the reality is, if one were to have a major contraction, much less plan a voluntary, intentional one, the pressure to stop it would be overwhelming and from every side: retail, political, financial, human, ecological, economic, military; there is no way such a plan could be seriously considered, much less implemented. WE ARE NEVER MOVING TO EFFICIENCY UNDER A DEBT-BASED MONETARY SYSTEM. End of story. To the contrary: such a system incentivizes and even DEMANDS new waste and expensive, ruinous ideas like the Green New Deal. And even if they fail, they must ever-increase.

So why are we not having a Green New Deal of easy efficiency, one that we know works, but instead spending ever-more on ever more massive expenditures that are ever-less fruitful? Because this is what the system is designed to do. It’s what it depends on. And as you get what you incentivize, every body, everywhere in the system, will be incentivized to do this or die trying. And this will continue until we change the base assumptions, what we measure, what we capture and profit by. Left or Right, big or small, town or country, public or private, nothing can change in our system until we change it, until we change our beliefs about who we are, what we want, and what we are doing.

For me, I prefer easy, provable gains and a higher, easier quality of life, and I’m not afraid to make those changes that improve us without being at the expense of others. And we will need to face where we are and the challenges of the steps before us. Because essentially we all agree. We not only need a New Green Deal, we need a New Deal altogether. A better one, a fairer one. A possible one. One with a future. So let’s start acting like it and begin.

 

 

Apr 232017
 
 April 23, 2017  Posted by at 2:31 pm Finance Tagged with: , , , , , , , , , ,  11 Responses »


René Magritte Le Cri du Coeur 1960

 

Austerity is over, proclaimed the IMF this week. And no doubt attributed that to the ‘successful’ period of ‘five years of belt tightening’ a.k.a. ‘gradual fiscal consolidation’ it has, along with its econo-religious ilk, imposed on many of the world’s people. Only, it’s not true of course. Austerity is not over. You can ask many of those same people about that. It’s certainly not true in Greece.

IMF Says Austerity Is Over

Austerity is over as governments across the rich world increased spending last year and plan to keep their wallets open for the foreseeable future. After five years of belt tightening, the IMF says the era of spending cuts that followed the financial crisis is now at an end. “Advanced economies eased their fiscal stance by one-fifth of 1pc of GDP in 2016, breaking a five-year trend of gradual fiscal consolidation,” said the IMF in its fiscal monitor.

In Greece, the government did not increase spending in 2016. Nor is the country’s era of spending cuts at an end. So did the IMF ‘forget’ about Greece? Or does it not count it as part of the rich world? Greece is a member of the EU, and the EU is absolutely part of the rich world, so that can’t be it. Something Freudian, wishful thinking perhaps?

However this may be, it’s obvious the IMF are not done with Greece yet. And neither are the rest of the Troika. They are still demanding measures that are dead certain to plunge the Greeks much further into their abyss in the future. As my friend Steve Keen put it to me recently: “Dreadful. It will become Europe’s Somalia.”

An excellent example of this is the Greek primary budget surplus. The Troika has been demanding that it reach 3.5% of GDP for the next number of years (the number changes all the time, 3, 5, 10?). Which is the worst thing it could do, at least for the Greek people and the Greek economy. Not for those who seek to buy Greek assets on the cheap.

 

But sure enough, the Hellenic Statistical Authority (ELSTAT) jubilantly announced on Friday that the 2016 primary surplus was 4.19% (8 times more than the 0.5% expected). This is bad news for Greeks, though they don’t know it. It is also a condition for receiving the next phase of the current bailout. Here’s what that comes down to: in order to save itself from default/bankruptcy, the country is required to destroy its economy.

And that’s not all: the surplus is a requirement to get a next bailout tranche, and debt relief, but as a reward for achieving that surplus, Greece can now expect to get less … debt relief. Because obviously they’re doing great, right?! They managed to squeeze another €7.3 billion out of their poor. So they should always be able to do that in every subsequent year.

The government in Athens sees the surplus as a ‘weapon’ that can be used in the never-ending bailout negotiations, but the Troika will simply move the goalposts again; that’s its MO.

A country in a shape as bad as Greece’s needs stimulus, not a budget surplus; a deficit would be much more helpful. You could perhaps demand that the country goes for a 0% deficit, though even that is far from ideal. But never a surplus. Every penny of the surplus should have been spent to make sure the economy doesn’t get even worse.

Greek news outlet Kathimerini gets it sort of right, though its headline should have read “Greek Primary Surplus Chokes Economy“.

Greek Primary Surplus Chokes Market

The state’s fiscal performance last year has exceeded even the most ambitious targets, as the primary budget surplus as defined by the Greek bailout program, came to 4.19% of GDP, government spokesman Dimitris Tzanakopoulos announced on Friday. It came to €7.369 billion against a target for €879 million, or just 0.5% of GDP. A little earlier, the president of the Hellenic Statistical Authority (ELSTAT), Thanos Thanopoulos, announced the primary surplus according to Eurostat rules, saying that it came to 3.9% of GDP or €6.937 billion.

The two calculations differ in methodology, but it is the surplus attained according to the bailout rules that matters for assessing the course of the program. This was also the first time since 1995 that Greece achieved a general government surplus – equal to 0.7% of GDP – which includes the cost of paying interest to the country’s creditors. There is a downside to the news, however, as the figures point to overtaxation imposed last year combined with excessive containment of expenditure.

The amount of €6-6.5 billion collected in excess of the budgeted surplus has put a chokehold on the economy, contributing to a great extent to the stagnation recorded on the GDP level in 2016. On the one hand, the impressive result could be a valuable weapon for the government in its negotiations with creditors to argue that it is on the right track to fiscal streamlining and can achieve or even exceed the agreed targets. On the other hand, however, the overperformance of the budget may weaken the argument in favor of lightening the country’s debt load.

Eurogroup head Dijsselbloem sees no shame in admitting this last point :

Dijsselbloem Sees ‘Tough’ Greek Debt Relief Talks With IMF

“That will be a tough discussion with the IMF,” said Dijsselbloem, who is also the Dutch Finance Minister in a caretaker cabinet, “There are some political constraints where we can go and where we can’t go.” The level of Greece’s primary budget surplus is key in determining the kind of debt relief it will need. The more such surplus it has, the less debt relief will be needed.

That’s just plain insane, malicious even. Greek PM Tsipras should never have accepted any such thing, neither the surplus demands nor the fact that they affect debt relief, since both assure a further demise of the economy.

Because: where does the surplus come from? Easy: from Troika-mandated pension cuts and rising tax levels. That means the Greek government is taking money OUT of the economy. And not a little bit, but a full 4% of GDP, over €7 billion. An economy from which so much has already vanished.

The €7.369 billion primary surplus, in a country of somewhere between 10 and 11 million people, means some €700 per capita has been taken out of the economy in 2016. Money that could have been used to spend inside that economy, saving jobs, and keeping people fed and sheltered. For a family of 3.5 people that means €200 per month less to spend on necessities (the only thing most Greeks can spend any money on).

I’ve listed some of the things a number of times before that have happened to Greece since the EU and IMF declared de facto financial war on the country. Here are a few (there are many more where these came from):

25-30% of working age Greeks are unemployed (and that’s just official numbers), well over 1 million people; over 50% of young people are unemployed. Only one in ten unemployed Greeks receive an unemployment benefit (€360 per month), and only for one year. 9 out of 10 get nothing.

Which means 52% of Greek households are forced to live off the pension of an elderly family member. 60% of Greek pensioners receive pensions below €700. 45% of pensioners live below the poverty line with pensions below €665. Pensions have been cut some 12 times already. More cuts are in the pipeline.

40% of -small- businesses have said they expect to close in 2017. Even if it’s just half that, imagine the number of additional jobs that will disappear.

 

But the Troika demands don’t stop there; they are manifold. On top of the pension cuts and the primary surplus requirement, there are the tax hikes. So the vast majority of Greeks have ever less money to spend, the government takes money out of the economy to achieve a surplus, and on top of that everything gets more expensive because of rising taxes. Did I ever mention businesses must pay their taxes up front for a full year?

The Troika is not “rebalancing Greece’s public finances in a growth-friendly manner”, as Dijsselbloem put it, it is strangling the economy. And then strangling it some more.

There may have been all sorts of things wrong in Greece, including financially. But that is true to some degree for every country. And there’s no doubt there was, and still is, a lot of corruption. But that would seem to mean the EU must help fight that corruption, not suffocate the poor.

 


Yes, that’s about a 30% decline in GDP since 2007

 

The ECB effectively closed down the Greek banking system in 2015, in a move that’s likely illegal. It asked for a legal opinion on the move but refuses to publish that opinion. As if Europeans have no right to know what the legal status is of what their central bank does.

The ECB also keeps on refusing to include Greece in its QE program. It buys bonds and securities from Germany, which doesn’t need the stimulus, and not those of Greece, which does have that need. Maybe someone should ask for a legal opinion on that too.

The surplus requirements will be the nail in the coffin that do Greece in. Our economies depend for their GDP numbers on consumer spending, to the tune of 60-70%. Since Greek ‘consumers’ can only spend on basic necessities, that number may be even higher there. And that is the number the country is required to cut even more. Where do you think GDP is headed in that scenario? And unemployment, and the economy at large?

The question must be: don’t the Troika people understand what they’re doing? It’s real basic economics. Or do they have an alternative agenda, one that is diametrically opposed to the “rebalancing Greece’s public finances in a growth-friendly manner” line? It has to be one of the two; those are all the flavors we have.

You can perhaps have an idea that a country can spend money on wrong, wasteful things. But that risk is close to zilch in Greece, where many if not most people already can’t afford the necessities. Necessities and waste are mutually exclusive. A lot more money is wasted in Dijsselbloem’s Holland than in Greece.

In a situation like the one Greece is in, deflation is a certainty, and it’s a deadly kind of deflation. What makes it worse is that this remains hidden because barely a soul knows what deflation is.

Greece’s deflation hides behind rising taxes. Which is why taxes should never be counted towards inflation; it would mean all a government has to do to raise inflation is to raise taxes; a truly dumb idea. Which is nevertheless used everywhere on a daily basis.

In reality, inflation/deflation is money/credit supply multiplied by the velocity of money. And in Greece both are falling rapidly. The primary surplus requirements make it that much worse. It really is the worst thing one could invent for the country.

For the Greek economy, for its businesses, for its people, to survive and at some point perhaps even claw back some of the 30% of GDP it lost since 2007, what is needed is a way to make sure money can flow. Not in wasteful ways, but in ways that allow for people to buy food and clothing and pay for rent and power.

If you want to do that, taking 4% of GDP out of an economy, and 3.5% annually for years to come, is the very worst thing. That can only make things worse. And if the Greek economy deteriorates further, how can the country ever repay the debts it supposedly has? Isn’t that a lesson learned from the 1919 Versailles treaty?

The economists at the IMF and the EU/ECB, and the politicians they serve, either don’t understand basic economics, or they have their eyes on some other prize.

 

Nov 082016
 
 November 8, 2016  Posted by at 4:59 pm Finance Tagged with: , , , , , , , ,  2 Responses »


Joe Schwartz/Jewish Museum May Day Parade, New York City 1936

Neither candidate in the US presidential election has had many specifics to offer on their economic ideas and projected policies, and that may be a smart move for both. If only because none of the two has indicated any real understanding of what awaits America as per November 9. And I don’t mean where the stock markets will be tomorrow morning, or the price of gold, though short term volatility is obviously certain.

The November 7 rally on Wall Street made plenty clear where everyone’s bets are placed -on Hillary-, so much so that there’s not much of a rally left if she wins. A Trump win could well see some panic, downward pressure for the dollar and stocks, upward pressure for gold, but there’s no telling how long that would last.

It’s the medium to long term future that’s far more interesting. Because who wins makes no difference for the reality of the US economy. It’s been abysmal for years, and there are no plans available for turning that around. Government debt – across the board- and budget deficits don’t help, but they’re not the biggest deal; the US controls its own currency.

It’s private debt, consumer debt, that will offer the winner his or her poisoned chalice. With 94 million Americans not counted as part of the workforce, and untold million others in jobs that pay hardly or no living wage, with so many millions of jobs that no longer pay sufficient or even any benefits, consumer spending has nowhere to go but down.

In an economy where that spending is good for 70% of GDP -perhaps a bit less by now, a bad enough sign-, taking spending power away from people is deadly. The only way people have been able to either keep up appearances or even just make ends meet is going into debt.

 

 

This graph from Wolf Richter shouldn’t really need any explanation, but people have been so numbed by endless repetitions of sunny skewed data that it does. Sure, mortgage debt no longer looks as bad, thanks to foreclosures, jingle mail etc. So Wolf depicts debt without mortgages.

In just 9 years, from let’s say Bear Stearns to roughly this summer, consumer debt in America has gone up more than 50% ex-mortgages. And it’s not as if it was low in 2007, quite the contrary. The graph shows us what the American economy has survived on. It’s as plain vanilla as that. It’s the only graph you need, all the rest is just decoration. And it’s every inch as scary as it looks.

There was a time when America worked for its money, for its homes, for its cars, its healthcare, for the education of its children. There was a time when America produced and sold enough to be able to afford all that. Those days are long gone. Today, the prospect is one of borrowing more money to be able to pay back what you borrowed yesterday.

If and when interest rates start to rise, either in and of themselves or because the Fed has an epiphany, all that debt will get much harder, and much more expensive, to repay. Increasingly, Americans will unceremoniously and rapidly start to fall off the back end of the truck, and one by one lower consumer spending even more.

There’s nothing a new president can do about this. There is a slight difference, granted, in that Hillary largely thinks she can let things continue as they have -but look at that graph, they cannot continue!-, while Donald Trump wants to tear up international trade deals and bring back jobs to America.

Trump’s idea look a tad wiser, but so much manufacturing infrastructure has been obliterated that there’s no telling how fast it can be rebuilt. It’ll take years, for sure. Moreover, America cannot produce most items as cheap as many other countries can, so already squeezed consumers will get squeezed even more.

It’ll have to be back all the way to Henry Ford, paying people more so they can afford what they produce. But, again, look at that graph. If Americans didn’t have that debt burden, and again that’s ex-mortgages, the ‘Ford model’ might have been more feasible. It is not now.

Either of the candidates would have had to base their campaigns on a story of ‘we need to take a few steps back in order to do better later’, and that’s still a politically deadly message in today’s realm of eternal growth, fictional as it may be. People will vote for the better promise, not for the more realistic one. After all, how can they tell? It’s not as if the media will enlighten them.

There’s only one set of possible circumstances under which people will even just accept the ‘few steps back’ idea, and that’s wartime. Which is exactly what Hillary seems to be going for, judging from her neverending anti-Russia, anti-Putin and anti-Assad ‘utterances’ that look very hard to step back from. Maybe she understands America’s economic predicament better than I think?!

I like Wikipedia’s definition of a Pyrrhic victory, couldn’t hardly have put it better myself: “A Pyrrhic victory is a victory that inflicts such a devastating toll on the victor that it is tantamount to defeat. Someone who wins a Pyrrhic victory has been victorious in some way. However, the heavy toll negates any sense of achievement or profit.”

That sounds about right. I just have the idea that Hillary would enjoy it a bit more, and more blindly, than the Donald would. But it wouldn’t make much difference regardless. Obama’s had the luck that he’s been able to hide the economic downfall on his watch behind a $10+ trillion increase in the Fed balance sheet and a multiple trillion, 50% increase in household debt.

The next president won’t have any such gift thrown into their laps. The new president will have to empty the poisoned chalice.

Imagine being -almost- 70 years old, well-off, and still wanting that job. What’s that make a body? In urgent need of a lifetime of therapy? Mariana Trench-deep unhappy?

And on top of that both candidates already know close to half the country hates their guts to begin with.

Remember, not even Socrates could beat the poisoned chalice.

 

 

Jul 222016
 


Dorothea Lange ‘OK Family bound for Kingfisher and Lubbock. We’ll be in California yet’ 1938

Basic income is a topic I’ve been thinking about for a while, and while I won’t get anywhere near a comprehensive overview -there are too many uncertainties and untested ideas-, I’m going to try to paint a first chapter in a work of progress. Or, a thought experiment, for me and others.

Of course I’ve read a lot of and about other people’s ideas on the topic, and I’m sure there are many more out there that I haven’t seen yet, but I’m afraid to say that about all of those I did read tend to fall into the same ‘trap’. That is, they project their ideas, which are widely varying, onto -or close to- the economy (economies) and society (societies) as they are today.

Their basic income examples and ideas and theories (as well as criticisms of them) are all built around a perception of the economy as it is, or better still as it once was. And that is probably a bad idea. Because the economy of the future will not be like it is today, or was yesterday, and neither will societies.

And that is not because of the role automation and/or robots will play, a topic that features prominently in many basic income writings; those things are but a minor distraction. What will change our world much more profoundly will be the inevitable demise of the economic system as we know it.

And it’s against that backdrop that the issue of basic income must be viewed. If only because it then becomes something entirely different.

 

 

I started thinking a while back that it would not be robots or inequality that would be the foundation of and driving force behind basic income, but the ruin of our pension systems. Of course one has to be careful with general statements on this, because there are so many different systems and approaches when it comes to pensions and other old-age ‘provisions’ and/or ‘benefits’.

What all have in common today, though, is that they’re woefully underfunded and sliding down further fast due to ultralow interest rates and other ‘policies’, as well as to ageing societies. It seems almost incredulous that until a few years ago most pensions funds were required by law to invest only in AAA-rated assets.

While they may not all suffer from the same afflictions, all these systems, from Social Security to private pension funds, do suffer from the same symptoms. Painting the picture with a broad stroke, it’s safe to say they’re all in essence Ponzi schemes.

While many of the ‘Social Security variety’ depend on the trust in a government to pay out something for which nothing -or very little- has been set aside, those of the variety in which money IS actually paid in are inflicted by the twin impairments of too little return on what is paid in to maintain the fund, and too few newcomers to pay for what ‘oldtimers’ never paid but do want to take out.

A third ‘impairment’ will occur when younger workers figure out they’re paying into something they will never see any benefits of, and refuse to fork over any longer.

Low interest rates and ageing populations are wreaking havoc on -especially- European and Japanese pensions even as we speak, and a brief look at future trendlines makes abundantly clear where things are going.

Pondering all that, it seems obvious that at some point a government with at least a bit of vision would come to the conclusion that a basic income to replace all the faltering old-age provisions schemes -and many others- might make a lot of sense. If only because, once you think about it, ‘free’ money only for older people does not make sense, neither politically nor economically.

 

 

But let’s take a step back; that last bit still doesn’t take sufficiently into account that our economies are about to undergo radical changes because they are collapsing. What I find interesting is that this collapse actually seems to play into the hands of a basic income. For several reasons, as a matter of fact.

I am convinced that a basic income in an economy that’s part of a centralized, even globalized, system, makes no sense. You can’t really have a basic income in a society that imports most of what it uses, but that still is the model of most of our societies. We import much of what’s essential, and export non-essential things.

That is a problem that will more or less solve itself, though we better pay attention and be prepared, or else. We may not know exactly when or how the economic collapse will occur, but that’s not the most important thing. What is, is that centralization can only happen in a growing economy. As soon as growth halts -or even reverses-, economies will of necessity decentralize. Unless perhaps they’re under a dictatorship, but even then.

Setting up a basic income system in a society that, for example, imports its clothes and furniture -and sometimes even food- from China, is a doomed proposition. The number one requirement for a successful basic income is that the money issued stays inside the society it’s being issued in. If not, it would merely speed up bankruptcy.

The money must be spent locally, on local products, as much as possible, because then it will be worth much more to the local economy. This will also go far towards fighting deflation, because the velocity of money will increase. To ensure that as much as possible is spent inside a community/society, the manufacturing base will need to be (re-)built.

Which must happen anyway as the global economy sinks, and the sooner, the better. The worldwide transport lines we know today will not exist for much longer, and it will take time to adapt one’s economy to that.

On the bright side, this decentralization, or relocalization, or ‘protectionism’ if you will, will (re-)create a lot of jobs. Not ones that will pay as much as what we see now, but that’s not necessarily such a bad thing. And besides, it’s not as if we have some kind of free choice. Reality will dictate the terms. We must produce our own essentials once again: food, clothing, housing, furniture etc.

Still on the bright side, the new jobs will make basic income much less costly for a society. Because you can top off what people make on top on whatever the basic income is, and you can do so at a level that everyone can agree to.

 

 

That’s my first take of basic income in a crisis, a crisis I see as set in stone. Which changes the whole issue of a basic income. Plenty people will see this as socialism or something in that vein, I see it as perhaps the only way to make sure you have a functioning society on the way down. With none of the alternatives looking particularly appealing.

When discussing the details of such a program, what would probably be good, if only for the sake of justice, is to combine it with Steve Keen’s notion of a Modern Debt Jubilee, in which debt gets cancelled but those with most debt are obliged to pay -part of it- down, while those who are debt-free get ‘rewarded’ for that status.

What I have always found difficult to envision is how a jubilee would work in modern days. The ones ‘of old’ would typically involve a local ruler and/or landlord to whom subjects owed debts of some sort, which the ruler could declare null and void while still being the ruler- and the richest man around.

Today debts are global, with much of them having been securitized and sold on to large -financial- institutions who may even be anonymous and have shareholders in dozens of different countries. How do you get them to agree to large-scale debt cancellation or reform? I’m not saying it can’t be done, but it’s not the same thing.

The hardest part of what I laid out above may well be to get people who feel they are owed benefits, pensions or otherwise, to accept that these will be incorporated into a new basic income system. Not many understand to what extent pensions systems are Ponzi’s, and even those who do to an extent may still refuse to give up their slice of the pie.

It should be fairly easy, though, to explain what their slice will look like once the systems collapse, or even simply once nobody pays in anymore. And because younger people have no reason to pay for something they know they will never see the benefits of, and moreover all this can be phased in/out over a certain period of time, it may well unfold faster and easier than one might think at first sight.

 

 

Lastly, some numbers. Greg Ip wrote for the Wall Street Journal last week: Revival of Universal Basic Income Proposal Ignores Needs of Labor Force. Obviously, in my example, i.e. in an economy that’s going down the drain, the term ‘needs of the labor force’ takes on a whole different role and meaning. In his piece, Ip says:

To send every American adult $10,000 a year would cost $2.4 trillion, or 13% of GDP.

And I think that is a misleading way of phrasing things. Because the money doesn’t disappear, so it doesn’t ‘cost’ that; and that’s not only true in my theoretical example. Most of the ‘basic income money’ would circulate inside the economy, and much comes back to the issuing state through various taxes. Crux is don’t let it leave the economy it’s issued in.

Mind you, I don’t see a basic income trial happen in the US, because it’s far too big a country. The EU is too large too. You’d need smaller units. And as I said, a shrinking economy would of necessity make units smaller. In Europe, these units already exist. In countries the size of Finland, Switzerland, Scotland, Wales, perhaps Greece, a basic income trial may well be viable.

That is, provided they shrug off the strangleholds that bind them to centralized systems. But that they will wind up doing regardless. What’s more important is that such a trial is meticulously planned, and not with some pie in the sky idea of where the world economy is headed.

Greg Ip suggests that a $10,000 basic income for all US adults is not realistic, because it would ‘cost’ 13% of GDP. But this graph from the World Economic Forum World Economic Forum on social expenditures as calculated by the OECD, puts things in a different light:

 

In 2014, US social expenditures were at about 20% of GDP, which is 50% more than Ip’s example. And that is the main point behind the basic income question, even if you don’t subscribe to the collapsing economy ‘thesis’: what would happen if you replace all -or almost all- social benefit schemes in a particular society with a basic income? How much money would you save, or how much extra would it cost?

Ip seems to contend that a basic income would be prohibitively expensive. But, even if the OECD numbers fail to include certain items, there’s a lot of leeway between the 13% of GDP a US basic income would cost, and the 20% of GDP America now pays in benefits. About $1.2 trillion in leeway. So the cost picture at the very least is not all that obvious.

By the way, it’s kind of funny that I’ve seen nobody address the perhaps most ironic thing: even if the state would save a lot of money moving to the much simpler basic income from a myriad of other programs, that would make a whole lot of civil servants unemployed all at once. Can’t help wondering why no-one brings that up.

But the US is not the best example, for various reasons. It’s countries that have the right size to hold a trial in, or at least what we can perceive as the right size. Finland, Belgium, Denmark all spend close to 30% of GDP on social expenditures. Portugal, Greece, Slovenia, Luxembourg are at 25%. If a basic income can be had for 13% of GDP, these countries stand to save a fortune…

Unfortunately, you can’t be in the EU and start a basic income trial. And that’s a shame. Because it’s going to be very hard to get this right, and it’ll take some serious time and effort. So much so that not starting today is a risk in itself.

But as long as people keep having faith in the economists, politicians, bankers and reporters who drill the ‘recovery is right around the corner’ meme into them 24/7, and any alternative to that meme just scares the heebees out of them, I’m afraid there’ll be no basic income trial. Yes, there are a few ideas, but they’re all based on the wrong -growth- assumptions, so they’re sure to fail.

Caveat: No, I haven’t gone through all different social benefits plans of all countries I’ve mentioned, so I don’t know what part of GDP each spends at present, or how much they could save or lose. Someone will have to write ‘the book’ on this.

For my thought experiment here I found it sufficient to go with the basic principles, and throw in a few numbers. And the most elementary difference between me and other voices is not there anyway: that is in my putting the basic income issue against the backdrop of economic collapse, and nobody else really doing that whom I’ve read.

Yes, the title is Marquez, of course, THE time of cholera

 

 

Jul 052016
 
 July 5, 2016  Posted by at 12:20 pm Finance Tagged with: , , , , , ,  2 Responses »


Dorothea Lange Miserable poverty. Elm Grove, Oklahoma County, OK 1936

We used to have this saying that if someone asks you to do a job good, fast and cheap, you’d say: pick two. You can have it good and cheap, but then it won’t be fast, etc. As our New Zealand correspondent Dr. Nelson Lebo III explains below, when it comes to our societies we face a similar issue with our climate, energy and the economy.

Not the exact same, but similar, just a bit more complicated. You can’t have your climate nice and ‘moderate’, your energy cheap and clean, and your economy humming along just fine all at the same time. You need to make choices. That’s easy to understand.

Where it gets harder is here: if you pick energy and economy as your focus, the climate suffers (for climate you can equally read ‘the planet’, or ‘the ecosystem’). Focus on climate and energy, and the economy plunges. So far so ‘good’.

But when you emphasize climate and economy, you get stuck. There is no way the two can be ‘saved’ with our present use of fossil fuels, and our highly complex economic systems cannot run on renewables (for one thing, the EROEI is not nearly good enough).

It therefore looks like focusing on climate and economy is a dead end. It’s either/or. Something will have to give, and moreover, many things already have. Better be ahead of the game if you don’t want to be surprised by these things. Be resilient.

But this is Nelson’s piece, not mine. The core of his argument is worth remembering:

Everything that is not resilient to high energy prices and extreme weather events will become economically unviable…

…and approach worthlessness. On the other hand,…

Investments of time, energy, and money in resilience will become more economically valuable…

Here’s Nelson:

 

 

Nelson Lebo: There appear to be increasing levels of anxiety among environmental activists around the world and in my own community in New Zealand. After all, temperature records are being set at a pace equal only to that of Stephen Curry and LeBron James in the NBA Finals. A recent Google news headline said it all: “May is the 8th consecutive month to break global temperature records.”

In other words, October of last year set a record for the highest recorded global monthly temperature, and then it was bettered by November, which was bettered by December, January, and on through May. The hot streak is like that of Lance Armstrong’s Tour De France dominance, but we all know how that turned out in the end.

Making history – like the Irish rugby side in South Africa recently – is usually a time to celebrate. Setting a world record would normally mean jubilation – not so when it comes to climate.

Responses to temperature records range from sorrow, despair, anger, and even fury. Anyone with children or grandchildren (and even the childless) who believes in peer review and an overwhelming scientific consensus has every right to feel these emotions. So why do I feel only resignation?

We are so far down the track at this point that we are damned if we do and damned if we don’t. Remember the warnings 30 years ago that we needed 30 years to make the transition to a low carbon economy or else there would be dire consequences? Well, in case you weren’t paying attention, it didn’t happen.

While these warnings were being issued by scientists much of the world doubled down – Trump-like – on Ford Rangers, Toyota Tacomas, and other sport utility vehicles. The same appears to be happening now, with the added element that we are experiencing the dire consequences as scientists issue even more warnings and drivers buy even more ‘light trucks’. Forget Paris, the writing was on the wall at Copenhagen.

 

The bottom line is that most people will (and currently do) experience climate change as a quality of life issue, and quality of life is related to a certain extent to disposable income. Acting or not acting proactively or reactively on climate change is expensive and gets more expensive every day.

If the international community ever takes collective action on climate change it will make individuals poorer because the cost of energy will rise significantly. If the international community fails to act, individuals will be made poorer because of the devastating effects of extreme weather events – like last year’s historic floods where I live as well as in northern England, etc – shown to be on the increase over the last 40 years in hundreds of peer-reviewed papers with verifiable data.

And here is the worst part: most economies around the world rely on some combination of moderate climate and cheap fossil fuels. For example, our local economy is heavily dependent on agriculture and tourism, making it exceptionally vulnerable to both acting AND not acting on climate change.

Drought hurts rural economies and extreme winds and rainfall can cost millions in crop damage as well as repairs to fencing, tracks and roads. As a result, both farmers and ratepayers have fewer dollars in their pockets to spend on new shoes, a night out, or a family trip. This is alongside living in a degraded environment post-disaster. The net result is a negative impact on quality of life: damned if we don’t.

On the other hand, tourism relies on inexpensive jet fuel and petrol to get the sightseers and thrill seekers to and around the world with enough dollars left over to slosh around local economies. Think about all of the service sector jobs that rely on tourism that in turn depend entirely on a continuous supply of cheap fuel. (This is not to mention peak oil and the lack of finance available to fund any long and expensive transition to an alternative energy world.) I’m told 70% of US jobs are in the service sector, most of which rely on inexpensive commuting and/or a highly mobile customer base.

Any significant approach to curbing carbon emissions in the short term will result in drastic increases to energy prices. The higher the cost of a trip from A to Z the less likely it is to be made. As a result, business owners and ratepayers at Z will have fewer dollars in their pockets to spend on new shoes, a night out, or a family vacation of their own. The net result is a negative impact on their quality of life: damned if we do.

 

I suppose it deserves repeating: most OECD economies and the quality of life they bring rely on both moderate climate and cheap fossil fuels, but these are mutually exclusive. Furthermore, regardless of emissions decisions made by the international community, we are already on track for decades of temperature records and extreme weather events that will cost billions if not trillions of dollars.

The response in many parts of the world has been to protest. That’s cool, but you can’t protest a drought – the drought does not care. You can’t protest a flood – the flood does not care. And even if the protests are successful at influencing government policies – which I hope long-term they are – we are still on track for decades of climatic volatility and the massive price tags for clean up and repair.

Go ahead and protest, people, but you better get your house in order at the same time, and that means build resilience in every way, shape and form.

Resilience is the name of the game, and I was impressed with Kyrie Irving’s post NBA game seven remarks that the Cleveland Cavaliers demonstrated great resilience as a team.

As I wrote here at TAE over a year ago, Resilience Is The New Black. If you don’t get it you’re not paying attention.

This article received a wide range of responses from those with incomplete understandings of the situation as well as those in denial – both positions dangerous for their owners as well as friends and neighbours.

The double bind we find ourselves in by failing to address the issue three decades ago is a challenge to put it mildly. Smart communities recognize challenges and respond accordingly. The best response is to develop resilience in the following areas: ecological, equity, energy and economic.

The first two of these I call the “Pope Index” because Francis has identified climate change and wealth inequality as the greatest challenges facing humanity. Applying the Pope Index to decision making is easy – simply ask yourself if decisions made in your community aggravate climate change and wealth inequality or alleviate them.

For the next two – energy and economics – I take more of a Last Hours of Ancient Sunlight (credit, Thom Hartmann) perspective that I think is embraced by many practicing permaculturists. Ancient sunlight (fossil fuels) is on its way out and if we do not use some to build resilient infrastructure on our properties and in our communities it will all be burned by NASCAR, which in my opinion would be a shame.

As time passes, everything that is not resilient to high energy prices and extreme weather events will become economically unviable and approach worthlessness.

On the other hand, investments of time, energy, and money in resilience will become more economically valuable as the years pass.

Additionally, the knowledge, skills and experience gained while developing resilience are the ultimate in ‘job security’ for an increasingly volatile future.

If you know it and can do it and can teach it you’ll be sweet. If not, get onto it before it’s too late.

 

 

Dr. Nelson Lebo is a serial permaculture property developer and consultant. He likes underdogs but not drug cheats. Congratulations Cleveland and Ireland.

 

 

Jun 192016
 
 June 19, 2016  Posted by at 2:39 pm Finance Tagged with: , , , , , , , ,  8 Responses »


DPC White Star liner S.S. Olympic, sister ship of Titanic, NY 1911

The reason the Brexit debate has gotten so out of hand is nobody understands what it’s about.

The Brexit campaigns have started anew in the UK, and from what I’ve seen here from left field barely a thing has changed since the murder of MP Jo Cox. Neither side has any qualms about using her death to make their respective points. The main, and perhaps only real, point is that nobody understands what the vote is about. Jo Cox, bless her soul, didn’t either.

This lack of understanding is also, at the same time, the reason why the debate has gotten so out of hand. Nobody seems to understand it’s not about Cameron or Nigel Farage, or Michael Gove vs Boris Johnson, it’s about voting for or against the EU, for or against Juncker and Tusk and five other unelected presidents having a say in one’s life.

And that’s not all either. It’s about voting to leave, or remain in, a Union that is already dead and preserved only in a zombie state. Brexit is just one vote and many more will inevitably follow. Brexit is not the first, Grexit had that ‘honor’ last year. Later this month, elections in Italy and Spain have the potential to turn into preliminary Italix and Spexit votes. And then there will be more.

The reason why these things are taking place, and will be, going forward, is that the economies of all these countries are fast deteriorating. The sole reason why people have accepted the rule of Brussels coming from far away over their daily lives, is the promise that it would make those lives better and more comfortable.

That promise has been shattered. The EU has made things worse for most Europeans, not improved them. And when seen in that light, why should people agree to continue to be told what to do by those who’ve made them poorer? There’s no democratic model in which that remotely makes sense. There are only undemocratic models left.

Britain’s Brexit referendum has run head first into global developments, and there is no sign that any voice in the discussion recognizes this. They all think it’s about something else. And of course Cameron’s policies have devastated the country, and of course the even more right wing Leave campaigners would make that worse. But that’s not what this is about.

 

What Cameron missed when he called the referendum is not that some of his friends could turn on him and go Leave, what he missed is that so many Brits from both the left and the right would turn on him. He never expected that to happen. He always figured his manipulated rosy pink economic numbers would outweigh people’s actual daily lives.

This is a global phenomenon, it has little to do with Cameron himself, other than his neoliberal budget cuts are often even more extreme than those of many of his pan-European and indeed American and global peers. It has a lot more to do with the neoliberalism embedded in Brussels, which has installed technocratic governments in many countries, especially in southern Europe, all with disastrous consequences for the populations.

It’s an exact mirror image of what is happening in the US. The jobs numbers the government and media feed Americans look good once filtered through a hundred layers of manipulation, but people look at what job they themselves have, and what it pays them, and they look at their families, friends and neighbors, and then decide this just ain’t working out or adding up.

The Brexit vote is, in a nutshell, Britain’s last chance to hit the lifeboats and jump the Titanic before it hits the iceberg. This is not even because of the dictatorial character Brussels has taken on, which is starting to display cartoonish properties, it’s because the global economy has hit the debt iceberg well before the EU has.

Voting Remain in next week’s referendum comes down to “Let’s stay onboard so we can help rearrange the deckchairs. And while we’re at it, pick some nice tunes for the orchestra to play on the way down as we sink.”

 

If there’s one outstanding advantage to the Brexit debate, it must be that it has opened up British society to reveal all its festering boils, pimples, pustules, ulcers and neoplasms that had before remained veiled by either stiff upper lips or outright dumb-ass ignorance. Not that the ‘discussion’ has done anything to lift the dumb-assery, mind you; the intelligence level of the Brits has been exposed as yet another hidden sore.

Nothing typically British there either. Neither the people nor the politicians nor the media in the country show any sign of comprehending what is happening to them. Nobody is capable of taking a step back and seeing a bigger picture. Jo Cox’s death has done nothing to fix that issue. Indeed, if there’s one thing Britain has been, and still is, showing the world it’s that it’s incapable of solving its problems.

But that incompetence is not going to be alleviated by handing the reins to Cameron or Johnson, or Corbyn, or indeed Juncker and Tusk. The only remedy is a cold hard look at what’s really going on in Britain itself, a look at its place in a rapidly imploding global economic system, and a look at what being a part of the EU actually means.

To gauge that last bit, all one has to do is to look at Greece, at how the EU has forced the demise of the Greek economy, of its once magnificent health-care system, and of countless other segments of a society still mired today in inexorable decline. A look at the treatment of refugees holds a lesson or two as well.

The summarized lesson from all this is that Brussels will happily throw you under a bus if it feels that would further its ambitions. Of which the EU has many.

The treatment of Greece and the refugees has redefined the term ‘Union’, and everyone should take note.

 

In America, the Democratic and Republican parties have all but internally combusted and destroyed themselves. In Britain, Labo(u)r did that years ago through Tony Blair, and the Tories are doing it today by infighting over Brexit. None of these things are incidents or stand-alone events.

They are part of a much larger pattern, as evidenced by the popularity numbers of people like French president Hollande (8%?!). All but a few incumbent parties in the west are evaporating. And all for the same reason: the demise of the existing economic models and systems that they have based their policies and popularity on.

An economy in decline means the end of centralization and the end of existing political power structures. This is inevitable. Because both can exist only by the grace of ever growing economies. It’s what our economies are based on. It’s what our entire world view is based on. Sometime in the future historians will have a hard time understanding this, but for now it’s all we have, because it’s all we’re willing to consider: growth to infinity and beyond.

Which was, or seemed to be, kind of alright as long as there indeed was growth. But there no longer is any growth. And it will not return for a long time, arguably not in our lifetimes. Which makes it a problem that we haven’t prepared for the end of growth. Which is not terrible smart given that making a point for growth having stopped decades ago looks quite solid.

 

People in Britain try desperately to link Jo Cox’s murder to some sort of larger movement or entity, even if for all they know, for all they can know, the killer is just another warped individual who didn’t take his meds for a long enough period to make him go fully off kilter.

Yeah, he ordered some right wing magazines and books. But that doesn’t mean there’s a conspiracy behind the murder. Nor does it make this fascist and/or right-wing terrorism. Those claims are made solely in an effort to connect the tragedy to the Brexit vote. And that effort all by itself is a huge blemish on Jo Cox’s life, her death and her legacy.

To truly honor her would be to make sure you understand, and help others understand, what she herself did not.

Dec 142015
 
 December 14, 2015  Posted by at 3:43 pm Finance Tagged with: , , , , , , ,  6 Responses »


Dorothea Lange White Angel Breadline San Francisco 1933

Many people are cheering now that yesterday Marine Le Pen and her Front National (FN) party didn’t get to take over government in any regions in the France regional elections. They should think again. FN did get a lot more votes than the last time around, and, though she will be a little disappointed after last weekend’s results, it’s exactly as Le Pen herself said: “Nothing can stop us”.

And instead of bemoaning this, or even not believing it, it might be much better to try and understand why she’s right. And that has little to do with any comparisons to Donald Trump. Or perhaps it does, in that in the same way that Trump profits from -people’s perception of- the systemic failures of Washington, Le Pen is being helped into the saddle by Brussels.

The only -remaining- politicians in Europe who are critical of the EU are on the -extreme- right wing. The entire spectrum of politics other than them don’t even question Brussels anymore. Which is at least a little strange, because support for the EU on the street is not nearly as strong as among politicians, as referendum after referendum keeps on showing.

Some of which have rejected (more power to) the EU outright, like the one in Denmark last week, while others do it indirectly, by voting for anti-EU parties -see France this and last weekend-. There’s a long list of these votes going back through the years, with for instance both France and Holland saying No to the EU constitution in 2005, which led to many countries to postpone their own votes on the topic.

Brussels had an answer, though: by 2007, the Constitution proposal was converted into a Treaty (of Lisbon), which said basically the same but in a different order, and only through amendments to existing treaties. It was still rejected again in an Irish referendum, but in a second vote in 2009 accepted.

Importantly, the switch from Constitution to Treaty meant unanimity among EU nations was no longer needed; a majority was good enough. And so the whole thing was pushed through regardless of what people thought -and voted .

The overall picture is clear: Europeans in general are fine with the EU, but when it tries to grab more sovereign powers, they say NO, time and again. Only to be overruled by their own domestic politicians as well as Brussels. Their worries, frictions and arguments have only one way to go: the far right. All other political currents are united in unwavering support for the EU, basically no matter what.

But people see what’s happening in Greece, and with refugees, they see the way the Union treats the Russia and Ukraine issue, they see the new-fangled unholy plans with the EU border force, and they don’t want Brussels to tread on their respective nation’s sovereignty anymore than it already has.

They find no resonance for their worries at home, however, other than with people like Le Pen, Nigel Farage and similar ‘political outcasts’. And therefore that’s where they will turn. All Le Pen has to do is wait for the economy to get worse, and it will, and she can reap what the EU has sown.

As soon as Brussels threatens to turn into an authoritarian body, something it has already very evidently done, people will resist it.

The European Union could have been a very useful and appreciated organization, with many obvious advantages for the people of Europe. But as soon as it oversteps its boundaries, it is destined to self-implode. This process and outcome has become inevitable, because the Union has de facto appointed itself the arbiter of these boundaries.

The unelected high lords of Brussels have become too greedy, and too unaccountable, and they will end up achieving the exact opposite of what they claim the EU stands for: they will lead the continent into conflict, armed and otherwise.

The new border force concept is the perfect example for what is going wrong in Europe. A group of the largest, and therefore most powerful EU nations, have agreed on a rainy Monday afternoon that they’re going to set up some sort of military police force that will ‘protect’ the borders of member nations even if these nations don’t ask for such protection and/or outright resist it.

This is obviously directed mostly at Greece for now, and the EU thinks it can do with Greece as it pleases. But ask any German, French or British citizen if they want entrance to their countries controlled and decided by a para-military bunch of foreigners, and they’ll think you’ve lost it. But that’s the idea behind the border force: take away nations’ sovereignty. Start with the smaller and weaker and work your way up.

That this has some interesting legal implications, as I wrote recently in Greece Is A Nation Under Occupation, that few seem to even contemplate, will add to the entertainment.

There are 28 separate constitutions in the EU. Under which of these is it legal for a government to sign away control of its own borders? In how many of these countries will this be appealed at their own version of the Supreme Court? And how many of these courts will say: sure, sovereignty is way overrated anyway!?

The EU could have been a useful union. Not all those border checks, for one thing, not all those forms to fill out all the time. But with the advent of the euro, things got out of hand. You can have a functioning union between very different entities. But only as long as those differences are recognized and respected.

The euro is an idea that seeks to deny the differences between the people(s) of Europe, it seeks to claim that Germany IS Greece. To that end, it must then take away all nations’ sovereignty. The euro cannot exist without that. To function properly as a currency, it needs a banking union, a fiscal union. And then take it from there.

These are all things that nobody properly thought or talked about before it was introduced. Perhaps because everyone knew that these things would be unacceptable to the European people. And now the euro’s here, and all these things will have to be pushed through anyway. Brussels thinks it has plenty experience pushing things through despite the will of the people, so this one will work too.

But all it takes is for someone to point this out in clear language to people. Unfortunately, the only ones who do today connect this with resistance to refugees, to open societies, to all sorts of things that have nothing to do with why the euro is a failure.

Meanwhile, as I’ve written many times before, the EU is this body that self-selects for sociopaths in its hierarchy, being its undemocratic self. What few people recognize is that it also self-selects for the likes of Marine Le Pen.

And we haven’t seen anything yet. As I said before, all Le Pen has to do is for the economy to pine for the fjords. And looking at the current commodities slaughter, that might happen before anyone can look it up in the dictionary.

And Angela Merkel, after having pushed aside the Dublin accord on refugees and opened German doors, now wants to close them again. As if that works. The EU now wants to hand Greece tens of millions of euros just to keep refugees in the country.

But what happens when the recent projection of another 3 million arriving in Europe in 2016 comes to fruition? What happens when the refugees don’t listen to the Berlin/Brussels dictates? One can only imagine the chaos. The EU has offered Turkey €3+ billion to keep them there, but president Erdogan doesn’t look like the kind of guy you can make a deal with and expect him to live up to it.

Europe seriously risks being flooded with people, while its economy shrinks like a cotton jersey in an autumn rain storm. And who’s going to be looking at the wannabe dictators in Brussels for help then? Nations will end up deciding to decide for themselves. And because all politicians but the far right have unequivocally supported the Union for many years, guess who’ll be coming to dinner?

Today the victims are the Greeks and the refugees. And all those whose governments cut their benefits to ‘balance their budgets’. Tomorrow, those budgets must be balanced all over Europe, in this line of thinking.

As we witness the commodities plunge, and the stock market crash that must of necessity follow it, it becomes hard to see how countries like Italy, Spain, even France, could escape resembling Greece a whole lot more in 2016. And then Europe will be right back where it left off 70 years ago.

May 242015
 
 May 24, 2015  Posted by at 11:12 am Finance Tagged with: , , , , , , , , ,  3 Responses »


Harris&Ewing F.W. Grand store, Washington, DC 1925

Mario Draghi made another huge faux pas Thursday, but it looks like the entire world press has become immune to them, because it happens all the time, because they don’t realize what it means, and because they have a message if not a mission to sell. But still, none of these things makes it alright. Nor does Draghi’s denying it was a faux pas to begin with.

And while that’s very worrisome, ‘the public’ appear to be as numbed and dumbed down to this as the media themselves are -largely due to ’cause and effect’, no doubt-. We saw an account of a North Korean defector yesterday lamenting that her country doesn’t have a functioning press, and we thought: get in line.

It’s one thing for the Bank of England to research the effects of a Brexit. It’s even inevitable that a central bank should do this, but both the process and the outcome would always have to remain under wraps. Why it was ‘accidentally’ emailed to the Guardian is hard to gauge, but it’s not a big news event that such a study takes place. The contents may yet turn out to be, but that doesn’t look all that likely.

The reason the study should remain secret is, of course, that a Brexit is a political decision, and a country’s central bank can not be party to such decisions.

It’s therefore quite another thing for ECB head Mario Draghi to speak in public about reforms inside the eurozone. Draghi can perhaps vent his opinion behind closed doors, for instance in talks with politicians in European nations, but any and all eurozone reforms remain exclusively political decisions, even if they are economic reforms, and therefore Draghi must stay away from the topic, certainly in public. Far away.

There has to be a very clear line between central banks and governments. The latter should never be able to influence the former, because it would risk making economic policy serve only short term interests (until the next election). Likewise the former should stay out of the latter’s decisions, because that would tend to make political processes skewed disproportionally towards finance and the economy, at the potential cost of other interests in a society.

This may sound idealistic and out of sync with the present day reality, but if it does, that does not bode well. It’s dangerous to play fast and loose with the founding principles of individual countries, and perhaps even more with those of unions of sovereign nations.

Obviously, in the same vein it’s fully out of line for German FinMin Schäuble to express his opinion on whether or not Greece should hold a referendum on euro membership, or any referendum for that matter. Ye olde Wolfgang is tasked with Germany’s financial politics, not Greece’s, and being a minister for one of 28 EU members doesn’t give him the liberty to express such opinions. Because all EU nations are sovereign nations, and no foreign politicians have any say in other nations’ domestic politics.

It really is that simple, no matter how much of this brinkmanship has already passed under the bridge. Even Angela Merkel, though she’s Germany’s political leader, must refrain from comments on internal Greek political affairs. She must also, if members of her cabinet make comments like Schäuble’s, tell them to never do that again, or else. It’s simply the way the EU was constructed. There is no grey area there.

The way the eurozone is treating Greece has already shown that it’s highly improbable the union can and will last forever. Too many -sovereign- boundaries have been crossed. Draghi’s and Schäuble’s comments will speed up the process of disintegration. They will achieve the exact opposite of what they try to accomplish. The European Union will show itself to be a union of fairweather friends. In Greece, this is already being revealed.

The eurozone, or European monetary union, has now had as many years of economic turmoil as it’s had years of prosperity. And it’ll be all downhill from here on in, precisely because certain people think they can afford to meddle in the affairs of sovereign nations. The euro was launched on January 2002, and was in trouble as soon as the US was, even if this was not acknowledged right away. Since 2008, Europe has swung from crisis to crisis, and there’s no end in sight.

At the central bankers’ undoubtedly ultra luxurious love fest in Sintra, Portugal, where all protagonists largely agree with one another, Draghi on Friday held a speech. And right from the start, he started pushing reforms, and showing why he really shouldn’t. Because what he suggests is not politically -or economically- neutral, it’s driven by ideology.

He can’t claim that it’s all just economics. When you talk about opening markets, facilitating reallocation etc., you’re expressing a political opinion about how a society can and should be structured, not merely an economy.

Structural Reforms, Inflation And Monetary Policy (Mario Draghi)

Our strong focus on structural reforms is not because they have been ignored in recent years. On the contrary, a great deal has been achieved and we have praised progress where it has taken place, including here in Portugal. Rather, if we talk often about structural reforms it is because we know that our ability to bring about a lasting return of stability and prosperity does not rely only on cyclical policies – including monetary policy – but also on structural policies. The two are heavily interdependent.

So what I would like to do today in opening our annual discussions in Sintra is, first, to explain what we mean by structural reforms and why the central bank has a pressing and legitimate interest in their implementation. And second, to underline why being in the early phases of a cyclical recovery is not a reason to postpone structural reforms; it is in fact an opportunity to accelerate them.

Structural reforms are, in my view, best defined as policies that permanently and positively alter the supply-side of the economy. This means that they have two key effects. First, they lift the path of potential output, either by raising the inputs to production – the supply and quality of labour and the amount of capital per worker – or by ensuring that those inputs are used more efficiently, i.e. by raising total factor productivity (TFP).

And second, they make economies more resilient to economic shocks by facilitating price and wage flexibility and the swift reallocation of resources within and across sectors. These two effects are complementary. An economy that rebounds faster after a shock is an economy that grows more over time, as it suffers from lower hysteresis effects. And the same structural reforms will often increase both short-term flexibility and long-term growth.

And earlier in the -long- speech he said: “Our strong focus on structural reforms is not because they have been ignored in recent years. On the contrary, a great deal has been achieved and we have praised progress where it has taken place, including here in Portugal.

So Draghi states that reforms have already been successful. Wherever things seem to go right, he will claim that’s due to ‘his’ reforms. Wherever they don’t, that’s due to not enough reforms. His is a goalseeked view of the world.

He claims that the structural reforms he advocates will lead to more resilience and growth. But since these reforms are for the most part a simple rehash of longer running centralization efforts, we need only look at the latter’s effects on society to gauge the potential consequences of what Draghi suggests. And what we then find is that the entire package has led to growth almost exclusively for large corporations and financial institutions. And even that growth is now elusive.

Neither reforms nor stimulus have done much, if anything, to alleviate the misery in Greece or Spain or Italy, and Portugal is not doing much better, as the rise of the Socialist Party makes clear. The reforms that Draghi touts for Lisbon consist mainly of cuts to wages and pensions. How that is progress, or how it has made the Portuguese economy ‘more resilient’, is anybody’s guess.

Resilience cannot mean that a system makes it easier to force you to leave your home to find work, but that is exactly what Draghi advocates. Instead, resilience must mean that it is easier for you to find properly rewarded work right where you are, preferably producing your own society’s basic necessities. That is what would make your society more capable of withstanding economic shocks.

Still, it’s the direct opposite of what Draghi has in mind. Draghi states that [structural reforms] “.. make economies more resilient to economic shocks by facilitating price and wage flexibility and the swift reallocation of resources within and across sectors.”

That obviously and simply means that, if it pleases the economic elites who own a society’s assets, your wages can more easily be lowered, prices for basic necessities can be raised, and you yourself can be ‘swiftly reallocated’ far from where you live, and into industries you may not want to work in that don’t do anything to lift your society.

Whether such kinds of changes to your society’s framework are desirable is manifestly a political theme, and an ideological one. They may make it easier for corporations to raise their bottom line, but they come at a substantial cost for everyone else.

Draghi tries to push a neoliberal agenda even further, and that’s a decidedly political agenda, not an economic one.

There was a panel discussion on Saturday in which Draghi defended his forays into politics, and he was called on them:

Draghi and Fischer Reject Claim Central Banks Are Too Politicised

The ECB president on Saturday said his calls were appropriate in a monetary union where growth prospects had been badly damaged by governments’ resistance to economic reforms. Mr Draghi said it was the central bank’s responsibility to comment if governments’ inaction on structural reforms was creating divergence in growth and unemployment within the eurozone, which undermined the existence of the currency area. “In a monetary union you can’t afford to have large and increasing structural divergences,” the ECB president said. “They tend to become explosive.”

He even claims it’s his responsibility to make political remarks….

Mr Draghi’s defence of the central bank came after Paul De Grauwe, an academic at the London School of Economics, challenged his calls for structural reforms earlier in the week. Mr De Grauwe said central banks’ push for governments to take steps that removed people’s job protection would expose monetary policy makers to criticism over their independence to set interest rates.

The ECB president [..] said central banks had been wrong to keep quiet on the deregulation of the financial sector. “We all wish central bankers had spoken out more when regulation was dismantled before the crisis,” Mr Draghi said. A lack of structural reform was having much more of an impact on poor European growth than in the US, he added.

De Grauwe is half right in his criticism, but only half. It’s not just about the independence to set interest rates, it’s about independence, period. A central bank cannot promote a political ideology disguised as economic measures. It’s bad enough if political parties do this, or corporations, but for central banks it’s an absolute no-go area.

Pressure towards a closer economic and monetary union in Europe is doomed to fail because it cannot be done without a closer political union at the same time. They’re all the same thing. They’re all about giving up sovereignty, about giving away the power to decide about your own country, society, economy, your own life. And Greeks don’t want the same things as Germans, nor do Italians want to become Dutch.

Because of Greece, many EU nations are now increasingly waking up to what a ‘close monetary union’ would mean, namely that Germany would be increasingly calling the shots all over Europe. No matter how many technocrats Brussels manages to sneak into member countries, there’s no way all of them would agree, and it would have to be a unanimous decision.

Draghi’s remarks therefore precipitate the disintegration of Europe, and it would be good if more people would recognize and acknowledge that. Europe are a bunch of fairweather friends, and if everyone is not very careful, they’re not going to part ways in a peaceful manner. The danger that this would lead to the exact opposite of what the EU was meant to achieve, is clear and present.